Thursday, 24 March 2011

A Dictogloss for One

Personal Notes on Call to Action Buttons: Examples and Best Practices

A dictogloss is a remarkably simple idea that I have found to be very effective in improving a number of language skills. It is defined on the British Council Teaching English website as:

"...a classroom dictation activity where learners are required to reconstruct a short text by listening and noting down key words, which are then used as a base for reconstruction."
There are many benefits to this particular activity, especially since it involves the student practicing all four language skills. They begin by listening, followed by note taking, text reconstruction and discussion. At the end they will be able to practice reading too. There are few activities that can engage such a variety of skills in such a short period.

However, the traditional dictogloss is not of much use in a one to one class. Collaboration and discussion are essential ingredients, and in this case the teacher cannot step in. I thought this was a shame, so I decided to see if I could adapt this most useful of tasks by doing the following.

Before the class, find a suitable recording. It should be pitched just below their normal level, as this is not an easy task. I chose a news story from for my intermediate student. Make sure you have a printed version as well. 

In a group dictogloss, you are looking for the group to end up with an as-close-as-possible reconstruction of the text. This is an unreasonable request to make of a solo student, so I decided to aim for an accurate summary instead. My feeling was that an individual dictogloss could be a useful way of practicing note taking and summary writing. 

At the beginning of the task, the student needs to be aware of what the final product is intended to be. Unlike the traditional activity, we can't surprise them, as they need to know what they are taking notes for from the beginning. They need to know that you want them to select the key points as they see it, but that they are not required to add extra information or opinion.
The activity then proceeds as follows:

1) Tell the student that they are going to hear a news story, and they should just listen. Play the news story.

2) Play again, and ask the student to take notes on the main points.

3) After they have finished, give the S a minute or two to tidy and finish their notes.

4) Play it again. Ask them to expand on their notes from before. Then give them another minute to finish.

5) Play it again if necessary (it normally is for me).

6) Ask the student to finish their summary. Offer to give names or places if they are required.

6) Give the student the printed version. Ask them to compare and discuss similarities & differences. Would they change anything if they could?

7) Offer to check spelling / grammar etc for the next class if they wish.
If you think it's worthwhile for the student, this could be done as the first stage of a process writing project. The summary they have written could be used as a first draft and then worked upon.

It's an activity that needs to be repeated to be really effective. Done regularly, the student should find themselves able to take more productive and useful notes, and able to create better and better summaries.

Useful links:
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Thursday, 17 March 2011

When The Path Becomes Bumpy... Part Two.

uphill struggle...

Following on from last weeks post, here are more ideas for helping intermediate students continue their progress. You can read last weeks post here.


Every class should begin or end, depending on your preference, with a five minute catch up of what was learned in the last class and since. It seems obvious, I know, but it often gets neglected at higher levels. I think it’s just as important at this stage, because we need to make the student aware of the learning that is taking place.

Record speaking...

...transcribe it, listen and check it later. It can be difficult to pay attention to some of the more fossilised errors that can occur with higher levels when you have other objectives in mind. You are probably working towards another objective or too engaged in the conversation (I hope!) to notice particular problems, which could be with vocabulary, grammar or pronunciation.

If you record your conversations with the student, with their awareness and consent, you have the opportunity to kill two birds with one stone. You can work on fluency first and then accuracy, and going back to a recording can help you achieve both in a way that is difficult otherwise.

You then have a text with which you can utilise for a whole range of activities. For example, you can type part of it up, and give it back to the student, asking them to correct any errors they can see in the text. After they are happy with their corrected version, you can ask them the same question again, and without their written version, they can try again.

Spelling log

This is a more detailed activity, but as I stated last week, we do need the student to realise that learning is taking place and this is one way that we can do that. It’s another beaut from Jason Renshaw (what would we do without him?) and it enables the teacher to keep a record of spelling errors found in writing. It then gives the student the opportunity to review their mistakes and work on them. It functions in a similar way to the speaking review through recording above.

It is entirely possible to extend this activity so it doesn’t just cover spelling. It could be adapted to also include confusing passages of text, which can be as big a problem as spelling at this level.

Feedback form

Many teachers will keep notes during a lesson of things to remember later, whether it’s for later in the lesson or for another time, and it’s equally important to continue this during higher levels. Again, I think this is often neglected because the higher level makes us think they need less supervision and feedback. In fact, I am now realising that they need a different kind of more detailed feedback as opposed to less of it.

With this in mind, I have adapted a handout that you can download here from onestopenglish. I have changed it so it doesn’t focus just on pronunciation by having a general ‘Things To Work On’ box, and I have changed ‘Corrections’ to ‘Observations’. You can download my version from here.

By using a pre-printed form, I think I am more likely to actually do it and respond to it than if I just scribble some notes down in my notebook. It enables me to more easily create structured lessons in the future. Again, it also sends a clear message to the student that you are taking their development seriously.

Set goals

I don’t think we can underestimate the importance of goal setting. This is a procedure I go through with all of my students, and it needs to be done methodically and checked up on at regular intervals. Simply, students need to be aware of exactly what it is they want to achieve in their studies and think about how they are going to get there. Teachers also need to know this too as it is our job to help them get there.

I will blog more about this in the future as it’s a subject that deserves it’s own post, but in the meantime you can read Berni Wall's excellent blog post about her way of setting goals which is very similar to mine.

If you have any further ideas of how we can help students continue their progress, I'd love to hear them, so please leave any suggestions you have in the comments. Thanks.
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Thursday, 10 March 2011

When The Path Becomes Bumpy... Part One.

clouds over hills

A common problem that we can encounter when teaching intermediate students is helping them to continue their progress through the language. In the early stages of language learning, it is much easier for students to feel that they are improving as they have a lot to take in, so their abilities should increase at a notable rate. Once students more or less reach intermediate level, the rate of progress often slows to a point where the learners begin to think that they are not learning at all, or even going backwards. 

This is probably not true, but compared to their previous experiences, the whole thing can begin to feel frustrating and pointless, and I don’t need to point out how damaging this can be to both the student and the teacher. Subsequently, it is essential for us teachers to recognise when this occurs and find a way to deal with it.

I have created an eight point plan which I believe will help students get over this figurative bump. It is designed for a one to one adult learner in an EFL setting, but could be adapted for other situations. They are not ranked in order of importance, or chronologically, as it really depends on the situation. Some of them are things I have tried before, and others are things I am planning to do in the coming weeks. Here are my first three ideas, with more to follow next week.


One of the aims needs to be to introduce as much English into students life as they can manage comfortably. One easy way is reading, which they can do little and often and at a time that is convenient. They should read for pleasure, so if it’s boring or they don’t like it, they should stop and read something else. It shouldn’t be study time, so if they must check some vocabulary, they should note it down or underline it and check it later. It shouldn't stand in the way of their enjoyment. 
One practical way to try and encourage the reading habit is to have your own library of books which they can borrow from. Of course they can read their own materials if they wish, but borrowing from the teacher adds extra incentives. Firstly, they’ll be impressed and grateful for your efforts, and they’ll know you’re serious about it. Secondly, if they’ve borrowed the book from you then they have an incentive to read it and give it back to you - it’s your property after all. Thirdly, presuming that you’ve read the book before, it gives you common ground for discussion during classes. You can ask how the student is getting along with it, which will lead to some very worthwhile and productive conversation, or let you know that they haven’t been reading it and you can prompt them again.

Following on from above, the same should also apply to authentic listening, and podcasts are a great way to do this. Often students will watch BBC News and CNN, as well as sitcoms and movies, and while this is obviously very valuable, I also like to encourage them to listen without pictures and body language to help them. It’s harder, but done regularly, can really help learners to become accustomed to the finer points of the language.

Finding the right podcast can be tricky, as they are often pretty challenging for this level if authentic, or too easy if designed for learners. I'm open about this with the students and tell them that this is likely to be a challenge, but it's with a long term objective. Just like the reading, they should choose things that they find interesting and try to get into the listening habit, whether it's on the train, in the car, or while doing the washing up. The point is not to understand everything, but to engage in a long term listening plan that will eventually increase their listening skills as well as other language abilities. It's vital that they understand this, or they are likely to become disappointed and subsequently demotivated.
Word Wise

In the last few months, Jason Renshaw has posted some gems over on his blog, and this was one of them. In essence it’s a way for students to keep a detailed record of the vocabulary they learn in class. Unlike the huge lists of words that students often keep, this document has only three words per page but goes into a great deal of detail for each one. The student can create examples, pictures, related vocabulary and write full sentences using their new words. A student that uses the Word Wise document properly will acquire new words and phrases with a deep understanding, and importantly at this stage, will recognise it too.

More ideas to follow next week...
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Friday, 4 March 2011

The worst thing about being a language teacher is... when you try to be a student again?

UBC classroom

A couple of months ago, I wrote about how important I believe it is for language teachers to periodically have their own language classes. That way we can experience what it feels like to be a student (you can read the benefits as I see it here). With that in mind, I had my first Brazilian Portuguese class yesterday. This was my first language class as an English teacher, and I found that it was as an illuminating experience as I had hoped it would be. I also realised, however, that this may not entirely be a good thing.

Instinctively I found myself analysing the teacher and his teaching techniques. In my head I was making a list of plus points and negatives, which I’ve summarised here -

Things I liked:

- Lovely class room manner
- Good at building student teacher rapport
- Obviously passionate about his subject
- Flexible and willing to deal with student queries.
- Vocabulary often presented in chunks
- Mostly speaks target language
- Not scared of tangents
- Well planned

Things to work on:

- Too much vocabulary
- Writes everything on the board
- Far too much teacher talk time
- Little interaction between students
- My advice: if you can’t draw, don’t draw.
- Tangents became too far removed from original vocabulary.
- I was late, and he stopped the class to talk to me. He should have just acknowledged me and spoken to me later.
- Grammar based, rather than theme based.
- Far too much homework (I’m not being lazy, honest!)
- Didn’t attempt to engage us with the subject.
- Lots of input, but no output activity in sight.

Overall I enjoyed the experience, and I’ll be going back. It was a very good experience as a teacher, I’ll learn a lot from being there because it offers the opportunities for me to reflect that I enjoy. However, it’s not going to help me improve my Portuguese, which is the main reason to be there of course. I don’t want to spend valuable time analysing the class when I should be getting on with learning the language.

At least as a teacher I know how to deal with the issues I confront and make the most of the opportunities the classes give me. That’s one advantage I suppose.
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